Ken Chowder's "Jadis" is an impudent mutt of a novel about a 33-year-old Westchester County, N.Y., Hamlet who's seized with emotional inertia. His wife Jadis -- "it rhymes with Gladys" -- has run off with her ice dancing instructor, and the desertion has Egg (Edward) Lambert asking the most stupid of questions: "Why me?" But instead of sitting by the fire and moping, Egg takes his moping on the road, tracking down all the women he's ever loved in order to find out -- and here's the rub -- if there's a pattern in all this.
In "Delicate Geometry," Chowder's thoroughbred novel about the sweet-natured absurdity of a romantic triangle, the yuppies that populated the book were gently satirized, and their dilemma of sorting out their entanglements had a quirky, happy-go-lucky appeal. In "Jadis," the hero has had a lifelong problem with being prodded into action, and Jadis' leaving him only magnifies his quandary. This point is made over and over again, and Chowder works so hard in making Egg such a nice guy, he's insufferable. (One understands immediately when Jadis tells her mother why she left him: "I was tired of watching my nice little husband admire me and the orange juice.")
In popular fiction, a woman scorned seeks revenge or goes shopping -- or if she's smart does both. In "Jadis" a man scorned takes Amtrak. Egg first visits, in Washington, D.C., Annie, his college flame who has married and become fat, crude and world-weary. (When Egg mentions that he is experiencing "marital problems," Annie laughs, "That phrase is redundant.") Egg next travels to South Carolina and encounters his childhood sweetheart, Tory, a Polynesian wood nymph whose magnificent breasts "were the expression of nothing at all, they were just there, and she took pleasure in their presence only very occasionally." Apparently their presence seems to mean a lot not only to Egg, but to Tory's mentor as well, a pompous old scholar named Quammie who is writing a book about insect reproduction called "Insex." Tory is soon torn between the two men.
Like a salmon swimming upstream to its birthplace, Egg ends up at his mother's in Florida. By this time it is apparent that this is no mere retreat but an all-out regression. Under the piano in Tory's old home, Tory and Egg make love where once they had played as kids. But this and other shenanigans designed to recapture the innocence of Egg's childhood are well in character: Egg even owns a toy store. (And that name -- Egg!)
When Jadis takes over the narrative in the second half of the novel, it's a relief. If Egg is our lethargic Hamlet, then Jadis is Adele H. or a Dolly Levi on speed. Jadis is a pop-culture Madonna who grew up believing that she would eventually marry Jay, of Jay and the Americans. She wants something "wonderful" -- that's why she leaves Egg. But she realizes her mistake almost immediately when her ice dancer lover has a couple of drinks and falls asleep, "and the secret of his age comes running out on his face like a mouse in the kitchen at night."
Getting back with Egg becomes an obsession with her, one she herself realizes is a rather banal one. "It's not that you're so wonderful," she tells him. "It's not like you're Jim Palmer or the pope." Jadis makes pestering phone calls, keeps Tory and Egg under surveillance, breaks windows and, when all else fails, rams her head right into Tory's magnificent breasts. All this forces Egg into action, and he chooses between the two as the novel ends.
Reading "Jadis," one is alternately charmed and appalled. Chowder has the extraordinary ability to find beauty in the everyday mess of love relationships. He turns simple pleasures -- ridiculous things that make people obscenely happy -- into comic cantatas, even a description of something as simple as a fondness for Doritos: "He dumps Nacho Cheese Doritos into the St. Croix pink wicker basket, grabs a throng of chips, and sits down with a smile slit into his face." Every page contains a funny line of dialogue, a quirky observation or a familial touch that makes you grin with recognition.
The main problem with the novel is that it's not about grown-up romance at all but about puppy love. Women are viewed as dominators, fantasy figures to develop crushes on. Egg never grows up, and the rest of the male characters are perhaps even more pathetic. These people don't connect or make any attempt to come to terms with the changing contemporary roles of men and women. During the '70s there was a gaggle of novels about women asserting themselves and finding that every positive move was thwarted by male chauvinist pigs. Now that women "have it all" -- the career, the choice of lovers, children, the option to walk away -- they can be just as beastly as the guys. In "Jadis," the boys have just co-opted the suffering.